Our first Library of Change meet-up happened yesterday. People were invited to bring a book that's had an impact on them recently, and informally share favourite quotes, ideas and insights. As our sharing and conversations unfolded over food, the diversity of topics somehow naturally brought us all the way from how to live a creative life - to how and when to die. And all of it was more inspirational than that sentence allows for!
Patti Smith's Just Kids offered an intimate reflection on the creative process, commitment to life as an artist, and the reality of creative pursuit behind the veil of celebrity. We talked about the solitude of making, the importance of feeding the mind and soul (with gallery visits, reading and other inspirational encounters) and treading the fine line between naivety, uncertainty and conviction in a life lived outside of the 'norm'. We reflected on time, and the many years of graft that went into producing the icon we know as Patti Smith - the hidden reality of effort that eventually builds to great art (or indeed, any change agenda or breakthrough).
The thread of time was picked up in Atul Gawande's Being Mortal, a book about death, the cost of keeping people alive at all costs, and the new ethical and moral dilemmas we face as an aging population and medical advancements that mean we can sustain people well beyond what they'd survive without them. When is it time to go? And who gets to decide? The book includes a powerful twist, when Gawande's father - also a doctor - falls ill as he is writing the book, and suddenly these questions become a personal matter. The book Ageing with Grace by David Snowdon was mentioned as an insight into the science of healthy and longer lives - a study that follows the lives of a community of nuns and how their way of life brings meaning into their everyday. Our discussion led us deeper into the experience of death, and also how we cope with it culturally. In many ways, its a subject of much awkwardness here in the UK, an emotional trauma that we've lost the rituals and the vocabulary to talk about and collectively process. We compared this to other cultures, like my Iranian heritage, where there are mourning periods, rituals, and expectations around mourning and supporting lose who are mourning. It is a social experience. There is language to remember those who've passed, and a culture of storytelling that celebrates remembrance. We pondered what an equivalent culture might be like for the UK, perhaps reaching for initiatives like the Death Café, which provides space and community for those who have experienced loss to connect and cope together. Steven Eastwood's documentary, Island, came up as a moving insight into the last moments of life - literally drawing the viewer in to witness a patients last breaths. It's an experience few of us in the West talk about, let alone witness, despite being a consistent presence beneath the surface of our daily lives. A broader conversation about the nature of life and death ensued, referencing (among other things) the episode of the Infinite Monkey Cage which posed the question, when is a strawberry dead? If life and death are so fluid, why is it that we see it as so black and white? Again, this led us into cultural distinctions - the belief in some cultures that death is simply a transition into another form, that it is our attachment to our fictional notion of 'self' that produces fear and avoidance of death.
And this idea of culture, storytelling and ritual was blown open by the third book of the evening - Sapiensby Yuval Harari. In it, Harari maps out how human civilization was able to flourish to what it is today through collaboration made possible by the generation of shared belief systems, mythologies and stories - what he terms the Cognitive Revolution. We discussed how these collective stories have offered both positive things - meaningful community, shared language and culture - and also challenges to human society - like the narrative of individualism and consumption that has led to (among other things) the degradation of the natural world. Tara Brach's wonderful talk on Stories That Imprison Our Heartis also a wonderful listen on this topic.
Our final book of the evening was Neale Donal Walsch's Conversations with God Part 1, a book that re-frames assumptions about religious teachings in the form of a dialogue between the author, and God. In it, God tells Neale that "the purpose of life is to recreate ourselves anew in the highest version of the grandest vision we ever had about ourselves." It poses interesting provocations on the sacred importance of free will, our relationship to authority, and the forces we tend to trust in our lives - often external ones over an intrinsic sense or understanding of what the 'truth' is. We challenged and talked about the myths that exist about spirituality, and pondered purpose, ethics and fulfillment in an age where religion is either becoming a polarising issue, or losing its meaning in the public sphere. We opened up about spirituality and the taboos that exist around it publicly, while we had the sense that many people have a desire to talk about and explore it more, to find new ways of expressing this intimate side to our identities and lives.
From strangers to friends in less than two hours, the first Library of Change exchange took us to some rich and unexpected places. If you'd like to join the next one, or talk to us more about the project, drop us a line!
What are you committed to creating in your life, and what are the foundations of your creative practice?
What are your experiences and beliefs about death? How do you think we could create the conditions for more people to connect and be supported during loss?
What are the stories that shape your notion of who you are, and your relationship to the world? Are they serving you? How might you rewrite them?